Return to Damascus

Conversion of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus

Conversion of Saint Paul iStock/Jorisvo

During the Easter season, we are retold the stories of how the Church grew from a small band of Jewish disciples to a worldwide faith of believers. We recall how the Holy Spirit intervened in the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul to bring about a mission to the gentiles. Yes, it was on the road to Damascus that Saul encountered the risen Jesus, which led to his conversion from a Christian persecutor to an apostle.

That early community of Christians in Damascus welcomed Paul, in spite of their fear, and accompanied him as he tried to make sense of his conversion experience. The Church in Damascus has continued to welcome and give witness to the presence of Christ up to the present day.

The sad truth today is that the Church of Damascus in Syria is a Church that is suffering. It is falling under the heavy weight of eight years of civil war. The unrelenting violence has shattered the lives of most families and has left the Church diminished in her ability to serve the pastoral and spiritual needs of those who remain.

Two years ago, the U.S. bishops called on Catholics to reach out in solidarity to our brothers and sisters living in the region of the Holy Land in the Middle East. This led our archdiocese, named after St. Paul, on a journey that ultimately brought us back to Damascus. We have initiated a partnership of faith and solidarity with the Archdiocese of Damascus that includes sharing our stories, prayers and resources to support one another. We look forward to the day when we might be able to meet one another in person.

In a sense, St. Paul is returning to Damascus to reunite with our forebears in faith and do our part to support them as they carry the heavy cross of this time.

Archbishop Samir Nassar is the Maronite Catholic bishop of Damascus. Since 2006, he has served the small, but devoted Catholic community living in Syria’s capital. In 2011, the civil war broke out, devastating and dismantling many aspects of society. Archbishop Nassar reports that after eight years of war, the main victims have been families, young people and the life of this ancient Church.

He says, “The basic unit of Syrian society — the family — that had previously saved the country in crisis, has lost its identity. Families are fragmented and live deprived of resources and shelter. They live in grief, ravaged by disease, while the old are increasingly isolated and find no assistance whatsoever.”

Young people, Archbishop Nassar says, are “divided between battlefield fronts of war and prolonged military service evasion. … Great quantities of young people leave the country, leaving a huge emptiness behind.” Their absence has also weakened economic activity due to labor shortages.

The decline of family life and the loss of the young has taken a heavy toll on Church life and practice. Archbishop Nassar says, “The Church structures are slowly disintegrating: In 2017, there were only 10 marriages rather than 30; seven baptisms rather than 40.” He says that priests have departed because there aren’t people to serve. It is very discouraging. The archbishop wonders, “Are we beginning a new chapter in the life of the Church?”

Despite the pain of so many losses, Archbishop Nassar maintains an uncompromising faith in the presence of the Lord. He wrote, “We carry on nevertheless, aware that we are in God’s hands. He says to each of us, ‘Do not fear, little flock’”(Lk 12:22).

As Syrians carry the heavy burden of this time, Archbishop Nassar finds consolation and hope in the Way of the Cross of Jesus that ultimately paved the way for his resurrection. Archbishop Nassar says that, on the way to Calvary, “Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem, only here it is the Syrian families who are with him, mourning a loved one, homeless, the wounded, refugees, and numberless young people who are now orphaned or forgotten.”

With his consolation, this present Lord wipes away their tears and strengthens their faith, despite their suffering, and allows them to see past it. And in the face of the wounded Christ, they might see the glorious light of the resurrection to come. This is the way of hope.

As St. Paul found faith and hope in Damascus, may we learn today from the faith of our brothers and sisters as we return to Damascus.

Deacon Friesen is director of the archdiocesan Center for Mission in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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Category: The Local Church